Tuesday’s federal budget announcement has already had a chilling effect on doctor consultations, with the medical community raising concerns that it may do more damage to healthcare services.
At the Healthcare Centre in Morwell, the number of patients consulting general practitioners dropped by 50 per cent a day after Treasurer Joe Hockey confirmed Australians would now have to pay $7 for every visit to the doctor.
“The news scared them off, especially in this area where there are a lot of low-income earners,” Healthcare centre owner Teddy Apostol said.
According to Mr Apostol, the health clinic received an average of 150 GP consultations on a daily basis before the budget announcement.
Mr Apostol, who also owns St Luke’s Medical Centre in Traralgon, was concerned GP consultation in that clinic would also trickle as a result of the $7 Medicare co-payment scheme.
“There’s a little effect today, but we may see its full impact in the coming days,” he said.
Mr Apostol expects low-income earners, such as single parents and patients with chronic illness, may avoid seeing their GP for preventive healthcare and instead seek treatment in local hospitals.
With less patients coming in to see their GP, this may scare off doctors from practising medicine in rural areas such as the Latrobe Valley, Mr Apostol warned.
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia said the new arrangement had made it more difficult for rural patients to seek affordable healthcare.
“The real danger is that many of the poorest rural patients will choose not to see a doctor for preventive healthcare and will then present in subsequent years with serious health issues that will cost the health system and hospitals significantly more to treat,” the RDAA said in a statement.
The RDAA said co-payments for pharmaceuticals, out-of-hospital pathology tests and diagnostic imaging services included in the health reform would impose additional burden on patients.
A staff member from a local radiology centre warned the new health reform would cause a “domino effect” that may force some healthcare providers to close down.
“In time clinics are going to close, radiology clinics will close,” said the medical staffer, who requested not to be named.
She also warned that some patients may resort to self medication to avoid paying doctor’s consultation.
“I believe in time it will cause a lot of problems for low-income earners. Some people may start self-diagnosing themselves or go to the internet and seek doctors online,” she said.